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Fresh Air Remembers Actress Patty Duke

Duke won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Helen Keller in 1962's The Miracle Worker. She died Tuesday at the age of 69. Originally broadcast in 1988.


Other segments from the episode on April 1, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 1, 2016: Interview with Patty Duke (obit); Interview with Vendela Vida; Review of the film Miles Ahead



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Patty Duke, the Oscar-winning actress who grew up in the public eye as a child star, died Tuesday in a hospital near her home in Idaho. She was 69. At the age of 12, she won over Broadway audiences as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Three years later, she played Keller in the screen adaptation and became the youngest actor at the time ever to win an Academy Award. Then she got her own TV sitcom, "The Patty Duke Show," and became one of TVs most celebrated teens. Here's a scene from 1965. Patty's at the doctor's office issues to see if she needs to have her tonsils removed. When she meets her surgeon, played by the dreamy Troy Donahue, she immediately develops a big crush.


TROY DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) I get the feeling you're not too thrilled about having your tonsils removed.

PATTY DUKE: (As Patty Lane) What ever gave you that idea?

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Dr. Bidderman (ph) told me about you.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Well, he didn't tell me about you.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) So why don't you sit down and we'll take a look? Aside from your throat, have you had any other symptoms?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Hot and cold and a little dizzy.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) When did that start?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) A couple of minutes ago.


DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Then sit back and relax. All right, open up and say ahh.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Ahh...

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, I'm not crazy about what I see.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) I am.


DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) Well, I might as well give you the bad news, Patty. You're going to have to have your tonsils out.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) Oh, that's terrible.

DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) The question is when?

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) How about tonight? I'm not doing a thing.


DONAHUE: (As Dr. Morgan) No, Friday is the first time I can take care of it.

DUKE: (As Patty Lane) It's a date.

DAVIES: After "The Patty Duke Show," Duke co-starred in the film "Valley Of The Dolls," playing a woman addicted to sex, drugs and alcohol. In fact, her own life was very troubled. She was born into a working-class home with an alcoholic father and was trained in acting and eventually taken from the home by a couple who controlled her life, embezzled her earnings and, she later wrote, sexually abused her.

She also had bouts of mental illness and was eventually diagnosed and treated for bipolar disorder. She kept acting and became a respected president of the Screen Actors Guild and a mental health advocate. Many details about her life were first revealed in her autobiography "Call Me Anna." Terry interviewed Patty Duke in 1988, not long after it was published.



Patty Duke, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DUKE: Thank you.

GROSS: Now, should I...

DUKE: It's lovely to be here.

GROSS: ...Call you Patty Duke? I feel so (laughter) asking you this.

DUKE: You can call me anything you want.

GROSS: (Laughter) OK. You know, in your book, you write about all this stuff that I certainly never knew about. I'm sure most of your fans never suspected, you know, bouts with manic depression, attempted suicide, stuff like that. I want to talk with you a little bit about some of the, you know, key things...

DUKE: Sure.

GROSS: ...That have happened in your life. Your parents basically turned you over to these theater...

DUKE: Yeah...

GROSS: ...Managers when you were age 7.

DUKE: ...I prefer to put it another way.

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: And this is in no way meant to be judgmental about the way you phrased the question, but...

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: ...I prefer you to talk about the fact that my mother was really coerced...

GROSS: To do...

DUKE: ...To give me up. My mother also suffered from a mental illness - clinical and chronic depression. She was very insecure, had no money, limited education. And here were these people who seemed to be saying we have the yellow brick road in our pocket. And if you really love this little girl - if you really love her, then you'll be unselfish and you'll give her to us and we will give her all the things you cannot.

Well, I can almost imagine myself falling for that. It appeals to guilt, motherly guilt that we're never good enough for our children. It certainly appeals to someone who feels inadequate. And so that's what she responded to. My dad by this time was out of the picture. They had separated, and my father was an alcoholic. So I went to live with them, and it seemed OK to my mom at the time, though very painful.

GROSS: Did you protest?

DUKE: No. It's interesting to me that I did not because I was almost literally attached to my mother at the hip. I was a very dependent child, crazy about my mother. These discussions happened without my being around so that when the information was delivered to me, my mother had already steeled herself for this, looked angry to me. That was my child's perception - she's mad at me, I did something wrong - and we didn't have the kind of household where you ask - where you questioned your mother about what was going on.

So I assumed - stupidly - that this was what she wanted. And I went because I was going to be a good little girl. It's funny, even today, I can get a little thing in my throat about it because it was the most painful separation of my life. That's something you can't ever make up for, and I admire my mother for the courage she's had to face that kind of pain.

GROSS: Well, what are some of the things that this couple did who took over your career to refashion you into to the person they think...

DUKE: All right...

GROSS: ...That they thought you should be?

DUKE: Yeah. These folks, though they come out in a very negative light for the most part in my book, were not complete villains...

GROSS: Yeah.

DUKE: ...In my eyes. And even in retrospect, I see that they had a talent. What they did was number one, start scrolling me in manners, taught me to speak in an English accent. So - their theory being that it would counteract the New Yorkese. I was a (imitating New York accent) very New York kid who talked like this (unintelligible). So there was many - there were many, many disciplined - highly-disciplined hours of that kind of exercise, plus working on how I looked.

Ethel, the wife of the twosome, often would tell me that I was very plain. Part of that I think was her attempt - though ill-guided - to keep me humble, to maintain control. And though I got much more affirmation from John Ross, the male part of the couple, her approval somehow held - carried a lot more weight for me.

GROSS: Well, they helped you get an incredible part, the Broadway...

DUKE: Absolutely. They did a lot of...

GROSS: ...Production of - yeah.

DUKE: ...Wonderful things. I started working quite early with wonderful people in live television. And then, yes, "The Miracle Worker" was a year and a half of preparation before I was ever granted an audition.

GROSS: What kind of preparation?

DUKE: The preparation began, of course, with learning about Helen Keller. But only up until Annie Sullivan arrives in her life. Again, the theory being - don't give me more information than I need and maintain control. Then on a daily basis, I was put through exercises pretending to be blind, stumbled around the house with my eyes closed.

Other exercises about being deaf - games were played, you know - I was a kid, so they used the game approach. And I was not to hear anything, let's say, for an hour and a half. If sometime during that hour and a half the phone rang or Ethel said to me there's a call for you, and I responded, I had blown the game. The difference in this kind of training is that not always were the methods kind. They were - there were often very denigrating remarks made rather than corrections. Again, it's something that I recall because it was important to me when I was raising kids to not do that to them, you know, to correct rather than, you know, call them wicked little whatever-they-ares.

GROSS: I remember the first time I saw "The Miracle Worker" the movie. When I was a child, I liked the movie a lot, and it scared me a lot.

DUKE: Really?

GROSS: Yeah. It scared me because the whole idea that somebody could go through life both blind...

DUKE: Oh, yes.

GROSS: ...And deaf terrified me. And when you're a kid, you never - you always figure, well, God, this could happen to be tomorrow, you know? (Laughter).

DUKE: Sure.

GROSS: So it was a very frightening thing, and I figured, oh, gosh, it must've been frightening for you to - especially when you were playing it on Broadway when you were younger...

DUKE: Actually...

GROSS: ...To have to think about that so much about what it would be like to be blind and deaf.

DUKE: Frankly, I can't believe this, but I never really thought of it in those terms before. I had many, many, many fears and obsessive fears as a young person, and maybe I was incorporating them into that role. And I do know for a fact that the role was very therapeutic for me...

GROSS: Oh, how?

DUKE: ...In many ways. The home life with the Rosses became quite distorted as I got to be 12 and 13 and 14, which were "The Miracle Worker" years. And to be able to go to a place every day and fight the authority figure full out hit, bite, kick and be applauded for it on top of that was incredible therapy. We now know as acting out therapy.

Of course, I didn't know it then, but I do know that probably my illness would have shown itself much sooner if I didn't have those outlets and, of course, the nurturing that I got from Anne Bancroft not only on stage but off. She really, I think, is responsible for helping me through puberty. If I had never met Anne Bancroft, I probably still wouldn't know about birds and bees and all that kind of stuff. She was incredibly generous to me.

GROSS: I just rented the movie recently to watch it again, and was really...

DUKE: That tickles me.

GROSS: ...You know, surprised at how good looking the movie is to me now...

DUKE: I was amazed, yeah.

GROSS: ...How really nicely shot and lit it is.

DUKE: It's wonderfully directed. And though I, you know, had a major crush on Arthur Penn, I didn't - I wasn't too much of a film critic in those years. But I looked at it recently myself, and it is a well-made film about, for me, the ultimate topic which is the success of the human spirit.

GROSS: I think everyone who's seen the film remembers the scene of the breakthrough where Anne Bancroft as Helen Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, is working with you as Helen Keller in trying to teach the association between objects and words. And there's the scene at the water pump where she's pumping water, and she's spelling it out to you.

DUKE: And she's angry if you recall.

GROSS: She's angry, right.

DUKE: She's angry at me because I've just done something very naughty in front of the rest of the family.

GROSS: But as the water's pouring on your hand, things pause for a second, and you suddenly - it's your only lines in the movie, really (laughter).

DUKE: That's right.

GROSS: You start to sound out water. I'd like to play that excerpt of the film.

DUKE: Oh, how interesting. I've never done this before.

GROSS: Let's hear it.


ANNE BANCROFT: (As Annie Sullivan) W-A-T-E-R, water. It has a name. W-A-T...

DUKE: (As Helen Keller) Water, water, water, water.

GROSS: It's the scene from "The Miracle Worker" in which Patty Duke as Helen Keller speaks for the first time.

What kind of advice were you given about how to make those sounds, the first controlled sounds you utter?

DUKE: I don't think I've ever told this out loud in public before. I think I wrote about it in the book. Arthur Penn wanted a particular sound, obviously the one we just heard. And I was a little girl with a little voice, and it just kept coming out (imitating little voice). And that wasn't it. And he gave me what I think is an absolute brilliant direction and an impossible one for a little teenage girl who has a crush on the director to take.

He came to me and he said, have you ever been constipated? I thought I would die. I mean, here he is. God, he's talking to me about constipation. I said, huh? He said, well, you think about that and then when it comes to that time besides all the other things that you're feeling and doing, I want you to incorporate that. And, of course, that's what you hear. And it is a wonderful symbol for Helen's intellectual constipation for those six years.

There's a line that comes a little bit after this that belongs to Anne Sullivan. It's when the parents come out of the house, and they're wondering what's going on it and what is all this yelling about? And she says she knows. I tell you to this day when I watch that movie or hear that or even hear those words, it has such impact on me. That tells me that knowledge and communication and understanding are probably the keys to what I'm all about.

DAVIES: Patty Duke speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Duke died Tuesday. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to Terry's 1988 interview with actress Patty Duke. Duke died Tuesday at the age of 69.


GROSS: You know what's really amazing? You went from "The Miracle Worker," doing it for years on stage and then on screen, to starring in this sitcom about this...


GROSS: About two well-adjusted teenagers.

DUKE: Not a logical progression?

GROSS: (Laughter) really.

DUKE: Again, believe it or not, the cleverness of the Rosses. And I mean this in a most positive way.

GROSS: These are the people who managed you.

DUKE: Yes, the mentors. They predicted that - remember, back then, we didn't have quite as many shows for teens as we do now. And they predicted that there was going to be a transition problem. Many young actors didn't make it through the teens and into adult acting. So the plan was as long as we'd got this offer for this television series, we'll put her in that. That'll get her through those, quote, "awkward years."

Now, it made sense to them. But I must tell you, I was not there for the telephone call, but I'm aware that Arthur Penn when he heard this was the deal that had been made, called up and just wanted to whip them soundly for this hideous mistake.

GROSS: Who came up with this idea of identical cousins? And for our listeners who don't remember the show, Patty Duke played this, like, really popular American teenager and also played this American teenager's Scottish cousin who was much more prim, proper and conservative...

DUKE: My goodness, you've been paying attention.

GROSS: ...And didn't know about rock 'n' roll (laughter).

DUKE: And didn't seem to know much about anything that had to do with the, quote, "real world."

GROSS: Now, they were identical cousins.

DUKE: Identical cousins...

GROSS: They looked exactly the same. Patty Duke...

>>DUKE ...Do you not love that?

GROSS: ...Played both of them.

DUKE: I have no idea why. Sidney Sheldon is the man who created the show.

GROSS: Mr. "Bloodline?"

DUKE: Yes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: Why cousins? I don't know. I think it had something to do with, you know, why wouldn't they have been in the household the same - you know, all these years behaving the same way? Also, I think they wanted some version of God knows what that accent was that I did.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: But I must say, most people when they talk to me about it, you know, folks on the street, talk about the twins. They forgot the cousin part.

GROSS: Well, I think I went through a - my early years thinking can there be identical cousins?


DUKE: Oh, God.

GROSS: Is this possible?

DUKE: I love it. Oh, we were filled with misinformation on that show. But I must say, I just saw - again, I was never allowed to watch that show, so I saw it only recently. And I was kind of happily surprised. All these years, I'd been kind of embarrassed by the whole thought, and I really would kind of, you know, turn my head and eyes away when people would mention it.

For its genre, it was quite a lovely little show. And they were nice people, and they weren't saying nasty, hideous things to each other all the time. And I kind of miss that element of a family show.

GROSS: We know you mentioned that you weren't allowed to watch it. That's 'cause the people who you were managing you thought it would go to your head if you got to see yourself.

DUKE: Exactly, yes. We dealt a lot in keeping me humble.


GROSS: So what...

DUKE: It worked (laughter).

GROSS: When you watched it for the first time as an adult, this was recently that you saw it for the first time?

DUKE: It was two years ago. My husband was still in the Army. I was visiting from Los Angeles and he was in Georgia. And I was waiting at the hotel for him to get off duty. And so I turned on the television thinking I'd watch some talk show in the middle of the afternoon, and I heard the theme. Now, the theme I had heard before because people sing it to me verbatim on the street corners often.

So there I was all alone in this hotel room and I was going to turn it off. And now, I don't know if that was a knee-jerk reaction from the Rosses or I was afraid I was going to be mortified or what. And I said, nope, this is it. I'm going to watch it. And I sat there on the edge of the bed - and, yes, I was at first embarrassed particularly about how I looked.

How could anybody let me go out of the house looking like that with that flipped up hair and the turned under hair? And the more I watched, the more I thought, oh, she really wasn't that ugly, that girl.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: And this is kind of a nice show. And then I noticed that I was also doing some very nice acting work. It was, you know, based on very thin premise, but nonetheless, there was some very real work going on there. So I was glad I finally saw it and I don't have to go cringing and skulking through hallways anymore when I hear the music.

GROSS: You know, throughout our conversation, we've been referring to the two people who managed you and did...

DUKE: John and Ethel Ross.

GROSS: You know, we're pretty tyrannical about it. How'd you get away from them?

DUKE: Oh, the typical way I guess a young girl in those days got away from the family they didn't like - I got married.

GROSS: Right.

DUKE: I was ill-equipped to do that or anything else at that point because once I made the move, the manic depressive symptoms came out. Once there were not the Ross's disciplines on the behavior, the demons, if you will, woke up, and I was quite out of control in the late '60s.

GROSS: Patty Duke is my guest, and she's currently serving in her second term as president of the Screen Actors Guild.

DUKE: I have to tell you...

GROSS: You're not?

DUKE: You know what...


DUKE: ...That sounds like to me? Oh, yes I am. Yes, I am.

GROSS: (Laughter).

DUKE: It's beginning to sound to me like it's a prison sentence.


DUKE: I'm - yes, I'm serving my second.

GROSS: Why did you want to do that - to go into organizing and to be in an administrative and a leadership position, which is very different than performing?

DUKE: I wish I could tell you that I had thought it out that completely. I had become very active in my union and about time, I might say. Most of us sort of, you know, get our card and that's it, we don't pay attention.

When it became apparent that union-busting was becoming a way of life in our country, I became just as a citizen more and more concerned. Yes, I wanted more of a leadership role. When some people suggested that I should run for the presidency at the Guild, it was at first a very heady kind of idea. But I also needed to know that I could back it up, that I could do the work.

Once I decided that I could do that, I also wanted the label of respectability. When you've been manic depressive and you have done very strange things, it's very important to you to show people that you are responsible and respectable. And once you do that, then you can relax and be responsible and respectable. You don't have to keep showing everybody.

GROSS: I wish we had more time to talk, but we're out of time. It's really been a pleasure to have you here.

DUKE: You're a delight, and this is a wonderful program. And I'm so glad it's so successful and it'll stay on.

GROSS: Oh, well, thank you.

DAVIES: Patty Duke speaking with Terry Gross recorded in 1988. Duke died Tuesday. She was 69

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest, writer Vendela Vida, is the co-founder of the literary magazine The Believer. Her husband, Dave Eggers, founded the literary journal McSweeney’s. Vida’s novel, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," was recommended by our book critic Maureen Corrigan for summer reading last year, and it’s now out in paperback. Maureen described it as both a travel cautionary tale and a fantasy about the infinite possibility that travel offers. The main character is a woman who’s left her husband and wants to get far away.

When the novel opens, she's on a plane to Morocco. As soon as she checks into her hotel in Casablanca, her backpack is stolen and she's left without credit cards, passport or any form of ID. The police investigating the theft give her a backpack, but it's not hers. She keeps it anyway, uses the passport inside and assumes the identity of the person it belongs to. Terry spoke to Vendela Vida last year, when "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" was published.



Vendela Vida, welcome to FRESH AIR. I think, for so many of us, you know, when we travel to another place, particularly if it's a foreign country, there's this feeling of dislocation when you get off, in the plane, in a place you've never been to. And you're so tired and disoriented from the long plane ride and the time-zone change and the cultural differences, and you sometimes just ask yourself, what am I doing here? So I want to start with a reading that I think kind of captures that sensation (laughter).


GROSS: So would you start with the reading that we've talked about, from the first chapter of your book?

VIDA: Sounds good. (Reading) You can't wait to check into your hotel room. You pass by an upscale Regency Hotel, an expensive-looking Sofitel, and when the driver says your hotel is close, you're happy because you think your hotel might be on par with these other tall, glassy buildings. You've been told your hotel, the Golden Tulip, is comfortable, and you've been looking forward to this comfort on the plane and in the van. But as you approach, you're disappointed. The Golden Tulip has a glossy, black entrance with two long banners - one advertising its restaurant and another advertising its pool. It looks like a typical tourist hotel, the kind that large groups might stay at for two nights before going to the next city on their itinerary. As the driver pulls up, you see and hear American and British tourists emerging from the front door. You're deflated, but what did you expect, that it would be full of locals? It's a hotel.

The driver opens the side door of the van and retrieves your suitcase from the rear. You tip him in U.S. dollars because it's all you have. You took out $300 at Miami International because you've learned from your travels to countries like Cuba and Argentina how valuable it can be to have U.S. cash. You tip the driver with a $20 bill. Later you will wonder if this was your initial mistake. You pass through a security portal as you enter the hotel, the kind you go through at an airport, but you keep your backpack on and hold the handle of your suitcase. Bellboys offer to take your bags, and you tell them you can manage. Or rather, you smile and say, no, it's OK. I'm OK.

GROSS: Of course, as we'll hear in a second, it's really not OK (laughter).

VIDA: (Laughter) It's not OK.

GROSS: Things are not good. So after your character puts down her bags and doesn't let, you know, the bellboy or anybody else, like, carry them for her and she says, it's OK, I'm OK - things aren't OK 'cause when she puts it down, her backpack is stolen and that gets the whole plot in motion. And I know you had an experience of having something stolen when you were in Casablanca, but I don't know what that thing was.

VIDA: A couple years ago, my husband and I were traveling to Morocco, and we had a similar experience in that we were checking in to a hotel called the Golden Tulip - which I, you know, I definitely put that in the book because I felt that they should take some responsibility. But anyway, (laughter), we were checking into the Golden Tulip, which is just an average tourist hotel, and while we were checking in and filling out the passport forms, my backpack was stolen, and it had everything in it.

It had a laptop computer with my book I was currently working on, which I hadn't been very good about backing-up. It had, you know, my wallet. It had everything I wanted for the trip. I had my passport in my hand, so fortunately - unlike the protagonist in my book - I did have my passport still.

GROSS: In the book, the police chief tells your character not to worry, he's a hundred percent confident that the police will catch the thief. And she thinks, not 95 percent, even? Like, a hundred percent? Like, how can you be a hundred percent confident? And he ends up giving her...

VIDA: Well, it's...

GROSS: Yeah?

VIDA: It was funny, 'cause when we checked in - when we did talk to the police chief, you know, my husband and I found ourselves watching the surveillance camera of the - in the hotel, seeing what had happened. It was actually really interesting. I really recommend the experience - not of having your stuff stolen in a foreign country - that experience, I do not recommend. But if you do have that experience, I highly recommend watching the surveillance video because it's really interesting to see how - it was really interesting for me to see how the backpack was stolen and how it was actually a ring of three people who were working together.

They were all wearing suits and badges so they would look official and like they were part of a conference at the hotel. And seeing myself on the surveillance camera, being completely unaware of everything going on around me was really intriguing. I also had a similar experience...

GROSS: Wait, let me stop you there 'cause this happens to your character, except the people at the hotel don't even know how to work the security camera playback system so she has to (laughter) figure it out for them.

VIDA: She has to help them, that is true. I will say the book is entirely fictional, but I did use the opening - the opening of the book is very much based on what happened to me, and the rest of the book just takes off into a fictional world.

GROSS: So did you have to play back your own surveillance footage?

VIDA: I did have to play back my own surveillance.

GROSS: (Laughter) Great.

VIDA: There were seven security people in the room and I had to play it back, and at first I didn't even recognize myself on the surveillance camera. You know, I even saw the moment where I looked down and my backpack wasn't there and I looked at my husband, and he said, where's your backpack? Did you forget it in the van?

And so we ended up going to the Casablanca police station, and while I was there, I was interviewed by three detectives who all sat like detectives. You know how detectives in, like, 1970s movies don't really sit in chairs or desks, they actually kind of lean against tables and desks?

GROSS: (Laughter).

VIDA: That's what these detectives were doing, and they all had the requisite little spiral notebooks that detectives have in movies. And they were asking me all sorts of really relevant questions like what was the profession of your great-great-grandfather? So questions that would really help, you know, (laughter), secure the location of my backpack as soon as possible. And while I was sitting there, Terry, I had the funniest experience. And at first, I was just - I was so upset. We'd just arrived, everything was gone, this book I'd been working on was gone.

And - but while I was sitting there answering all these very irrelevant questions, I started thinking about this novel idea I'd had - this idea for this novel I'd about the malleability of identity. And it's this novel that's been circling in my head for a few years, and I'd written passages but I'd never known exactly how the book would start. I hadn't found my way into the book, you know, the entree into it. And so while I was sitting there with these detectives, I suddenly realized that this was my opening - a woman arriving in Casablanca and having her stuff stolen and, you know, in this case, the protagonist having her passport stolen.

And so suddenly I became the happiest person, I think, the police station had ever seen. And my mood - I just became elated. I answered every one of the detectives' questions. It was just elation and pure joy, and I think my attitude really confused the detectives and the chief of police.

GROSS: Well, the way this sets off this shift in identity for your main character is, the chief of police - who's assured her that there's a hundred percent chance that they're going to, you know, return her backpack - the chief of police eventually turns over a backpack. And he doesn't use words like, your backpack - it's like, here's the backpack, or, here's a backpack.

And he doesn't really claim that it's hers, but he expects her to accept that, and she does. She accepts it and she takes this, like, stranger's passport and IDs and credit card and tries to work with that. And it just opens up all these possibilities for her to take on different identities and, you know, play with who she is. I doubt your story had that kind of outcome.

VIDA: My story did not have that kind of outcome, despite the police chief's assurances that it was a hundred percent likely I would get my backpack back…

GROSS: He really said that?

VIDA: He really said it. Someone else told me recently that if he had really been serious, he would've said 150 percent, but he was giving himself some leeway, (laughter), by saying a hundred percent. But that's - you know, I'm really influenced by films when I'm writing, and I - you know, I really love the film, "The Passenger" by Antonioni, and I was thinking that this would be a pivotal moment in the novel where she would take someone else's identity, much like Jack Nicholson's character in "The Passenger" takes on someone else's identity. And that's how the fictional adventure in "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" begins.

DAVIES: Vendela Vida’s book, “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” is out in paperback. We’ll hear more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we’re listening to Terry’s interview with writer Vendela Vida. Her novel, “The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty,” is out in paperback.


GROSS: I know your father had an antique store. So did you grow up with a lot of old books?

VIDA: My father grew up really poor in the Mission District and he had many jobs that, you know, he worked to get himself out of poverty, and he did reinvent himself a number of times while always staying true to who we was. His main job when I was growing up was working at an antique store that he owned, and he - one day, he brought home this really beautiful Italian bookcase to our house and it kind of stood right in the entryway. But there was a problem, that was that we that didn't have books to put in the bookshelf.

Both my parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college and they didn't have the opportunity to really collect a lot of books in their lives. So my father and I - I think I was with him at this time. I remember being with him at an estate sale and just buying all these beautiful old books. I mean, he didn't even really necessarily care what the titles were, he just wanted to fill this beautiful bookcase with beautiful-looking books, and these were old hardcovers.

And so it's kind of amazing, the impact that that these books had on my life and on my sister's life. I have a younger sister, she's five years younger, and we would pull down these books from the bookshelf and read them. And I remember being obsessed with W. Somerset Maugham's books from a very young age. I would, you know, I think from, like, age of 9, I just - I think I really just loved the name Somerset. And I don’t – I highly doubt I understood that much of what was going on, but I read those books, you know, at a young age.

GROSS: So as somebody who loves books as much as you do - reading them and writing them - you have this, like, odd almost - I don't know how to describe - you have an odd moment in one of your books that, I don't think I have this much belief in, (laughter), literature. You have a novel called, "And Now You Can Go," and at the beginning of the book, a young woman is walking through Riverside Park in Manhattan, and someone behind her calls out to her using the word ma'am, (laughter), and she turns around and it turns out he has a gun.

And he tells her he doesn't want to die alone, and he seems to want to take her life along with his so he can die in company. Of course, she is in a panic to try to find a reason to give him to keep living, and she does it because she loves books. She does it by trying to convince him that there's, like, great poems and fiction out there, and I'm thinking, like, are you kidding?


GROSS: Do you really think that somebody - a stranger in a park on the verge of suicide might be stirred by the idea of a poem that is - that they haven't read yet? And I'm wondering what you thought about when you thought that she could really disarm him - which she does, which she does.

VIDA: Which she does. The opening scene to "And Now You Can Go," I think the first 10 pages, are based on something that happened to me when I was 21 years old and I was studying at Columbia and I decided to go for a walk one December day in Riverside Park. I think it was around 2 o'clock in the afternoon. And I was approached, like the protagonist in the book, by a man who didn't want to die alone, and he had a gun.

And he led me over to a bench, and there were - I should say there were people around, but they were mostly nannies with small kids and so I knew I couldn't appeal to them for help - you know, mothers or nannies, I don't know. I just remember there were a lot of babies around. So there was no one there who I could really, you know, yell to for help. Also, you know, this man had a gun. And so he sat me down on a bench and told me that he didn't want to die alone, and I remember looking at him and looking at his gun, and looking - you know, he was wearing a leather jacket and I could smell the leather of his jacket.

And I noticed the side of his glasses said, Giorgio Armani, and I thought, I'm going to be killed by a man wearing Giorgio Armani glasses - what am I going to do? And I think there's a strange adrenaline that kicks in when you're in a situation like that. I remember being in science class in eighth grade and learning about adrenaline and seeing a picture of a mother lifting a, you know, car that's about to run over her baby. And, you know, just, the book was saying that - explaining how adrenaline could make it possible that this mother, who only weighed, you know, whatever she weighed - in the sketch, she looked like she weighed 130 pounds - how this woman could lift a car. But it wasn't until I was in that situation in Riverside Park that I really understood what adrenaline was.

And so my brain started working in a way that, you know, brains do under pressure, and I started thinking that my main objective is to get this man out of this park and up to Broadway Street where there are people and maybe policemen and I can appeal to somebody for help. And so I thought about this bookstore that I went to a lot on Broadway Street called - I can't remember the name of the bookstore now, and I don't think it exists any longer - but I thought, I just want to get him there because I've seen the pay phone. I've seen the phone they have behind the counter and I want to - they can call.

And so I started saying to him, you know, there's so much great stuff out there. There's poetry. You know, I sounded like some deranged schoolteacher at this point. And I had recently been reading the work of Mark Strand, the poet, and so I started just reciting some of his verses to this man. I started just, you know, the beginning of one poem, the ending of another - anything. I said, let's go to the bookstore and let's go look at some work by Mark Strand. It was the craziest thing. You know, I didn't know what I was saying even, but I saw some kind of flash of interest or recognition in this man's eyes, and he said, OK, let's go to the bookstore.

And so we started walking up to Broadway Street and when, you know, as we were getting nearer, he said, you know, he said, I've made a terrible mistake. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry, and he put his gun away and he ran. And so as fictitious as the beginning of that novel can seem, it actually is based on something that happened to me. And the rest of the book is fictional, but this first - I think it's nine or 10 pages are based almost exactly on my experience.

GROSS: Well, I want to apologize for making it seem like believing that you could disarm him by talking about poetry was preposterous. It saved your life.

VIDA: Oh, there's no need to apologize, Terry. No, it seems - it is - it was very bizarre, and, you know, I think it is a very unlikely situation. It does seem like a very, like, writerly dream to think that poetry can save someone's life, but in my case, you know, it literally did.

GROSS: Did you report him to the police afterwards?

VIDA: I did, yes. I reported him to the police, and I don't know if he was - he was never caught, no.

GROSS: How did that change your life and your sense of security?

VIDA: You know, I think for a few months after that, I was definitely shaken up. I still have a reaction to this day, you know, I don't think about it very often at all. But to this day, I still have a reaction that when someone reaches inside their jacket to pull out a pack of cigarettes, I still - there's a little part of me that jumps because that's exactly what the man in the park did that day. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out the gun from inside of his jacket pocket. But other than that, I don't think of it very often.

I did write a letter to Mark Strand several years ago - he passed away last year - but I wrote a letter to him several years ago telling him what had happened because I thought, you know, I really want a chance to - it's something that had been on my to-do list for a long time. I really wanted to tell Mark Strand what had happened. So we shared an editor and a publisher, Dan Halpern, at Ecco, and so I obtained his mailing address and I wrote him a letter which – you know, about what had happened and how his poetry had helped me and what it had done for me, and it was definitely an odd letter to write.

You know, I wanted to really take my time writing it. And I sent it to him, and I'm sure it was a very odd letter to receive. But he wrote me back within, you know, I think a day or two - you know, it was a mailed letter - and we had a really interesting correspondence and, you know, his letter meant the world to me.

GROSS: I bet what you told him meant the world to him. Not every poet gets to feel like they've saved somebody's life like that. Your character thinks, well, maybe she'll make a run for it, but then she thinks and then maybe he'll shoot her in the back and she'll be either dead or paralyzed. How much kind of mental calculation did you do? You know, you often hear that - from people who've been in situations like that, that reflex just takes over. It's not that you think your way through it - that, you know, reflex just - you just act. But it sounds like you didn't just act, you thought.

VIDA: I think time really slows down when you're in a situation like that, and you do have time to think. Every second is an eternity. And so I wrote the book many years later, and I - it was interesting, Terry, because I still remembered every single detail. I remembered the length of his eyelashes. I remembered the Giorgio Armani on his glasses. I remembered exactly what he said.

You know, there are all these details that come back to you, and I think the same thing happens when you're in that situation where just, like, time just slows down and you do have time to think, and your adrenaline is rushing and you make these choices and these decisions that later can really surprise you.

GROSS: Well, Vendela Vida, thank you very much for talking with us.

VIDA: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Vendela Vida, speaking with Terry Gross. Vida’s novel, "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty," is out in paperback.

This is FRESH AIR. In 1975, after Miles Davis recorded his best known albums, he mysteriously dropped out of sight for five years. That period is the springboard for the new film "Miles Ahead," directed and co-written by Don Cheadle, who also stars as Miles Davis. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In 2006, after Miles Davis was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - he died in 1991 - a member of his family told the press that a biopic was in the works starring Don Cheadle. Cheadle has said this was news to him but that he instantly saw the possibilities.

As Miles Davis in "Miles Ahead," he has the right wariness and sad, shocked-open wide eyes. Cheadle grew up playing the sax and learned trumpet for the role of Sammy Davis, Jr., in the TV biopic "The Rat Pack." Onstage in the movie, he’s unusually convincing, miming to Mile Davis’s performances. He bends over his trumpet as if he’s thinking each note, saying what he can’t say in any other language. The combination - thoughtful and feral, intellectual and erotic - is, for many of us, the essence of Miles. It’s a thrilling performance in a movie that’s good but not up to its star.

That’s mainly Cheadle’s fault, too. He’s also the director and co-screenwriter with Steven Baigelman. But you can sympathize. In interviews, he’s said he couldn’t get financing without a white co-star. That turned out to be Ewan McGregor, who plays a journalist writing an article about Davis’s five-year disappearance from the music scene in the 1970s. No knock on McGregor but the story is a little stale.

It’s set at the end of that five-year absence and turns on a session tape Davis has supposedly just made that his record company wants and a nefarious manager steals, which prompts Miles to do a lot of raging and gun-waving. There’s even a car chase. Davis was a recluse for five years, but none of the rest actually happened. It’s a fantasy, which wouldn’t matter if it were compelling, which it isn’t.

Here’s what’s good in "Miles Ahead" - everything else. Freed from standard biopic conventions, Cheadle focuses on one window of time, with plenty of space for flashbacks to the late '50s and '60s. The gist is that Davis never recovered from the loss of his wife, the dancer Frances Taylor, played by the magnetic actress Emayatzy Corinealdi, who flees when the cocaine-addled Miles - after cheating on and beating her - pulls a gun and hunts phantom intruders.

Talking to McGregor’s journalist, Miles weaves memories of their relationship through thoughts on his own artistic evolution, his high rasp uncannily like Miles’s own voice.


EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) So you studied piano, too, huh.

DON CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) No, just woke up black, knew how to play.

MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) You're black? Is it cool?

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) Go ahead.


CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) Frances loved Chopin.

MCGREGOR: (As Dave Brill) Yeah, she looks like a classy chick.

CHEADLE: (As Miles Davis) It's all we ever play at the house, you know, classical music. Chopin, Stravinsky, you know, we'd throw on some LaVelle. I studied all them cats, man, broke down their compositions. These revolutionaries, innovators, pushing back at that standard, classical bag. Chopin - it's all about improvisation. Bird and Diz is doing that onstage every night on the fly, didn't write it down.

I wanted to quit every night. You know, old people, they come up to me and they say, why don't you play it like you used to? I say, tell me how I used to. It takes a long time to be able to play like yourself. You don't do nothing like you used to. The music don't move on in this dead music, you know? It's just dead.

EDELSTEIN: In "Miles Ahead," Davis is dissipated by illness and addiction but still burning hot, too hot to settle into existing musical forms. It’s Cheadle’s most electrified performance since the one that made him a star, the incorrigibly homicidal Mouse in the 1995 mystery "Devil In A Blue Dress."

As director, his style is jazziest when he travels into the past, when Miles’s memories drift in on a wave of blue notes and cigarette smoke. We see him bend band mates like Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock to his will but also give them room to find their own pulse. There’s also an extraordinary turn by Keith Stanfield as an arrogant young trumpeter. Stanfield played a fiercely hurting teenage rapper in "Short Term 12" and looks more and more like a major actor.

Everything that’s great in "Miles Ahead" is marginal to the plot. But those margins are spacious enough to let Cheadle, as director and actor, go with the flow. I’d like to think even the unruly, perfectionistic Miles Davis would give at least a nod of approval.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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